A tepid and tedious Manchester Derby left both sides wondering what could have been as they played out an uneventful goalless draw at Old Trafford.
The ninety minutes consisted of niggly tackles, wayward passing and lethargic pressing. Naturally, the game was built on the premise of stamping their authority in the title race or top four push this season, but left many wondering what time the Anthony Joshua fight started.
Neither side fully tested the opposing goalkeeper and both sides created a handful of half chances. City came off the back of a very promising run, albeit against mediocre opposition, but failed to impose any sense of verticality or cutting edge.
That said, here are our five things learned from Saturday’s dull Manchester derby…
Ponderous Both Sides of the Ball
Throughout the first half, Manchester City had a few moments of real quality, most notably the Riyad Mahrez shot saved by De Gea after some incisive link up play. That was marred however by a plethora of poor passes or lack of any decisive pressing. Many of United’s build up was nullified by their own lack of quality on the ball rather than the City players hunting it down in drones and causing a quick turnover.
The second half wasn’t much better. If anything, it was worse. City neglected to push any players further forward to create an over load with the fear of United’s pace on the break. Cancelo had moments of quality with one key pass and four dribbles, but again his final ball was wanting. That final touch of quality reverberated around the entirety of the team. Jesus fed on what he could due to the lack of movement around him, Mahrez looked disinterested (executing no dribbles and completing only eighteen passes, the lowest in the starting eleven, with a passing accuracy of 72%) & Sterling again was wasteful.
Sterling had moments of quality, his speed and cute movement found him in key areas in behind the United backline, but either his touch or finish crushed the momentum of the attack and left the Englishman pleading for a foul that wasn’t there.
Caution over Creativity
Once the team was announced and Manchester City confirmed the double pivot will rear its head again in another key game, it made sense to a point. Containing the United threat on the counter and limiting the space Bruno Fernandes has in any United build up play is essential.
However, this tactic once again came to the detriment of City’s creativity moving forward. Exercising caution is one thing, but minimising our attack to two shots on target with an xG of 1.3 is another.
Of course, the lack of fans does affect the sway of any game, especially a derby. Perhaps the United fans would have willed the team to push up and create more than their two shots on target, leading to space opening up in behind for City on the counter. That said, United have been on shaky ground for a couple of weeks now, relying on individual brilliance to bail them out of games. They were there for the taking, but similarly to Liverpool, once the game approached the final twenty minutes, City and Pep looked happy for a point.
Rather than risk losing the game for the three points, a draw away from home looks to be enough. A theme we may see throughout this peculiar campaign.
A Lack of Subs Again
Like a broken record, the substitute debate comes back around. After imploring the league authorities to grant five substitutions this season in order to protect the players through this congested schedule, Pep once again elects to introduce one player to the mix.
If there ever was a game that was crying out for the vertical threat of Foden or the energy of Bernardo it was today. Even the involvement of Gundogan would have been a blessing after Fernandinho’s legs went on the hour mark.
It is strange that now Guardiola has pretty much a full squad (barring Aguero’s minor injury) for what feels like the first time in his tenure, he ignores providing fresh legs into a close fought but entirely meek affair.
Whether this act of stubbornness will persist from Pep moving into the Christmas period, one thing is for certain, Phil Foden needs to be given more game time.
Shadow of El Mago
Further to that point, the fact Foden was not brought on shortly after Ferran Torres was introduced is concerning. Admittedly, Foden has been subpar in his last few starting performances but his injection of pace and dynamism was glaring obvious in order to change the tempo of the game.
The lack of any presence in the half space on the left-hand side stunted all our attacks once Sterling/Cancelo got hold the ball. No one to play a wall pass off, like we saw in the first half with Sterling & De Bruyne linking up. That quintessential space David Silva would consistently find himself in order to play the ball in behind.
Now I don’t like harking on about the past like some other fan bases, but it is startling the chasm left by David Silva. When De Bruyne meanders over to the left-hand side he can create chances but he can’t be in two places at once, no matter how extraordinary the Belgian is. De Bruyne favours the right-hand side naturally, with his wicked first time in-swinging crosses and cute under laps.
That’s why Foden should have been thrown in as the game grew into a stalemate. He isn’t David Silva, as many players aren’t. But what he does do, is pick up those little pockets of space in the left-hand channel between the full back and centre half and tries to makes things happen. He will make mistakes and he will misplace passes, but on the evidence of today’s performance, that was par for the course.
Cancelo Love (Sort of)
To get the negative out of the way, we all know Cancelo is not a left back. His delaying of a through ball is infuriating and his insistence on constantly coming inside onto his right foot only certifies his delayed passes.
However, on a more positive note, I was rather impressed by Cancelo’s performance today. He had the third highest number of touches (88) after Rodri & Stones (91 & 90) and performed four dribbles (highest in the team). While only clocking in one interception, his reading of the game felt much improved. While United’s wayward passing at times aided that, many times Cancelo picked up some very good positions to pick off any United attack.
Going forward however, he did not have much luck yet always felt like an outlet during build up. Interestingly, Cancelo’s inverted full back role appears to sometimes have him drift into that half space I mentioned earlier, rather than in a more defensive position akin to Delph’s role in 2018. While this LB/CAM axis can work from time to time, especially against weaker opposition, Cancelo does need to provide a greater threat of width in order to help Sterling drift inside.
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